Woke Like Me

“No one knows whether death, which people fear to be the greatest evil, may not be the greatest good.” – Plato

 

There is a uniform that I adorn for these sort of occasions. Not black, which would be too pointed. Too “look at me in all my anguish” on social media. Inside my closet hangs a garment bag at the ready; a slim fit navy blue suit, matching navy blue tie, and a starched white Oxford shirt. I keep a mahogany belt and matching brown shoes in the lower compartment. To complete the look, a pair of lightly charcoal tinted, aviator sunglasses. In my mourning attire I am both respectful and practically invisible.

Manny is dead.

I feel compelled to pause and remind myself that it is not analogous to the time when Sarah moved to Raleigh, or even my parents divorce. It is a permanent status. It is the inevitable potential we all realize, and yet, sometimes achieve without warning. I had consumed enough literature to know a proper story structure. There are rules that we create in order in order to prevent a newly hurt audience from rioting in distress when a character is murdered. An author has to give clues to his paying customers, or risk their reducing an untimely demise as little more than a plot convenience. When simple minds see the random irony of existence they slap their knee and say that ‘you can’t make this stuff up,’ and they’re correct. We would never allow art to remind us how little fate concerns itself with character development. Perhaps that’s why we have literature in the first place. Not to shed light on the pageantry of life, but to pretend that there are rules in the first place.

There had been a wake for Manny, but I hadn’t attended. Public viewings were for the tourists, and I could imagine an only slightly more unhinged society where it wasn’t grotesque but fashionable to photograph yourself in front of the body, as if you were at the base of Mount Rushmore. I have no interest in mingling with the various ancillary acquaintances Manny had collected through his life as a sort of built up plaque that one acquires over time if they are not careful to cleanse. Common strangers who never understood Manny. Of course Manny was too polite to let on that was ever annoyed. But I could always tell in the way he would shrug and tell me just loud enough for everybody in the room to hear “they aren’t bothering me.”

I walk to the church, which I have to confess, bear no resemblance to the simple construction I’d imagined in my head. I pictured simple, dusty pews, and plain walls with an old organ, and large women fanning themselves in the heat. This is modern, clean space covered in flowers, and I can almost see the crisp air conditioning purring as I stand outside. I am intercepted as I approach the door by a large authority figure with the complexion of four hour old coffee, in one of those ostentatious black suits, that make it appear as though he is fetishizing death rather than respectfully observing the rite. He folded his arms and asked for me to identify myself. I couldn’t help but sense a fair amount of profiling taking place before me, but given centuries of oppression, I can hardly blame their nature.

“Sir, this is a private affair.”

I ask if this is the funeral for Manny Winslow, and he responds in the affirmative. I had of course attended funerals in the previous, but this is the first time that I have been tasked with explaining my intentions to the hosts. I consider whether I am too late, but am under the impression that, culturally speaking, it is customary to be more fashionable than functional with these people. Seeing a couple enter from behind my back confirms my previous assumptions. This would not be an event that I could take for granted.

“It’s for family and close friends.”

This of course is an almost painfully accurate description of our relationship. I explain as much to the gatekeeper, expecting his sense embarrassment to take over, but still he stands there, asking me who I am and what my relationship was with the deceased.

“I’m Jonah Webber. I work with Manny. Well, worked, as it were. It’s going to take some time to get used to saying that. I’m sure you can identify with that feeling. I sat next to old Manny for close to eight months, and I’m afraid I need some closure.”

“There was a viewing yesterday.”

A viewing. Just hearing the way that sounds coming out of his mouth is so distasteful. But I suppose we all grieve in our own way.

I tell the man at the door that I didn’t think that I was emotionally ready yesterday. The news was still so fresh that I could hardly believe it to be true. We’d only heard about the passing last Tuesday, and honest to Yah I don’t think a moment went by when I hadn’t thought of the man. The cold emptiness that came from his warm cubicle seemed to push against my flimsy wall with the kinetic pressure of an avalanche. All I could do while I talked to clients over the phone was mention the loss and how we were all hurting. I’d like to think that Manny was looking down on me, because it is looking more and more that I will make my monthly quota after selling close to four pages of ad space last week.

“Well I’m sorry, but again, this is for friends and family.”

But I was both. In fact, all that I had heard from Mr. Jacobson, the publisher, was that we were all a family. Indeed, it felt that way when Manny took me under his wing after I had failed to make my lowly rookie quota last winter. We had taken to going to a Mexican establishment every Friday, save for the occasional weeks where his kid came to visit or when I had something else going on. He introduced me to these marvelous pork tacos, where they brine the meat in cola, which I’ll admit sounds repulsive, but is absolutely sublime when done correctly. Just thinking about those glorious tacos made me wonder what other secrets I had been robbed of with his sudden cardiac arrest.

But of course, I am being emotional. I have to remind myself that this was not about me. This is about Manny. And if there is something I have to do for him, it is to assimilate. Though I had cared for him like a brother, I know that this is a trial that I have to conquer. I will have to demonstrate my value.

“Listen, I didn’t catch your name.”

“Rodman.”

“Yes, Rodman, well though you may not realize it, Manny and I had a truly deep bond. Like I said, I need the closure, and am only now in the right mind to see his face. And to tell you the truth, I think that I need this for my own well being. You see, I haven’t always been the greatest friend. A close friend, of course, but I think I always assumed that there would be time. Another time where we could do all the things we’d talked about. He’d always mentioned having people over for the Super Bowl or the 4th, and something always came up instead. You know, I can’t help but think that if I’d attended one of his cookouts we might be good friends today, you and me. But I promise to stay out of everybody’s way. And it’s such a large church you have here. I don’t suppose there is any way that I could just sit in the back while the proceedings take place?”

Though I don’t always open up to strangers, I find that I have a way of speaking from the heart and naturally connecting with even the most antagonistic characters until they become apathetic, and find themselves struggling to fight back. Of course, even in defeat Rodman can’t just let me pass, and despite my yearning for a quick resolution in the moment, I surmise that he would have been lowered in my eyes if he gave in to pleas without some battle, proud lion that he was. He waves another authority figure to his side, and whispers some secret in his ear. Both men, giant, imposing towers of strength in their own right, take turns looking at me, and somberly considers my presence. Could I be trusted?

This is my initiation. A public spectacle. Couples pass by, entire families, huddled close together, all exchanging wordless nods while they walk inside and prepare to grieve. It is the gatekeeper’s intention to embarrass me and see if the humiliation will drive me away. Thank you sir, may I have another?

The standoff concludes the only way that it can, so long as I don’t provoke anybody. I enter, knowing that I have gained their respect, and hopefully, their trust. As I look among the pews, I can not have been more proud to have been admitted entry. I see generations of the oppressed, talking quietly among one another, undoubtedly knowing that the times may have improved, but that the world remained an unpredictable jumble.

I take my seat closer toward the front than the back. Surely Rodman and his companion at that door knew my promise to stay back was really only a concession offered in the moment that I had no intention of keeping. A pleasantry. What I really intend to do was remain mentally in the back. I want to keep out of everybody’s mind, and will do my best to sink inside myself, but none of that should have precluded me from attaining good seats. And should a spot opened up in the third row, it would be rude of me to pass it up on Manny’s final gathering.

I sit and offer polite smiles to the grieving family. I’m surprised at the size of his family. There are so many bereaved. Manny lies only a few feet ahead of me, lying still as he would now forever, in his soon to be buried casket. Dressed in a suit and green tie, Manny looks like he’s taking a nap before a company event. To complete the look somebody should have rested a designer martini in his open hand, and propped his business card in his other. Ever the consummate salesperson, making connections to the grave. I remember the way he took me under his wing at the client events, joking around when everybody else was so stiff.

“Jonah, stop drinking. You’re shouting again, and it’s ‘totally unacceptable’ in front of the prospective clients.”

It was a dead-on accurate impression of the drivel management would pass on to us at the weekly meetings. These little jokes were our private notes passed in the ghetto of our corporate habitat that gave me faith in humanity. And now they were all I would ever receive from the now retired sage.

The reverend delivers the eulogy, of which I don’t receive words as much as the music of his voice. Deep and rhythmic, I can detect a symphony of abuse in his voice. Once you separate the pain, there is something beautiful in distress. An organic pop and hiss in his voice. The ghost of their innocence slipping through the words.

One by one Manny’s family take the podium, and wipe away tears while they unburdened themselves in our close embrace. His elderly parents maintain a simple grace while they speak of their deceased son. His brother releases a primal growl as he shouts upward to the heavens. The lights glaze the tear streaks on his face. In that moment he is the greatest muse an artist could receive.

But they are all prelude to Vanessa, my hazelnut dream. In what I am realizing might have been his greatest gift, Manny never told me about his daughter who appeared to be close to my age. It was most likely the only way that he could have saved our friendship, as I am immediately transfixed on her smoky beauty before she reaches the microphone. Even bereaved, when she is trying to be so small, I am consumed by an uncontrollable sensuality. Her large brown eyes sparkle through the tears. Her voice teases the motherly way she would raise out beautifully mixed children. Though my family would never have the temerity to question our love, I relished the chance to take a righteous stand at her side. It would be my greatest honor to strike a drunkard who dared to spew a repressed bigoted remark. I actually find myself craving a safe amount of discrimination, so that I could mete out its justice.

She recites poetry. Not good poetry, mind you. She says it is Maya Angelou, and for anybody else I would have written them off as simple minded. But through her lips, there is a soft warmth. I lock onto her thick braids, and beautiful lips.

I remind myself that she is burying her father. She is burying Manny. Bros before the physical manifestation of my nubile fantasies, as they say.

It makes me smile to see her degrade herself with that silly ‘poem.’. It isn’t stupidity, but an all too human flaw that makes her so much more vivid, the way a mole next to a set of lips becomes a beauty mark. I can’t imagine what they taught her in these city public schools. She would have attended well before the gentrified money came into the neighborhood. Who could differentiate the good from the Maya Angelou when everything is drowned out by the seductive thumping bass of the streets?

She finishes her poem and delivers the most beautifully constructed words imaginable. Spoken with such colorful colloquialism that I am moved on a physical level. Simple sounds that bludgeon with such sincerity, that they can’t help but feel true. I love her.

Her knees had buckle and a cousin had holds her by the shoulders as she hobbles back to her seat, unsteady as my faith in America. The old minister relieves her at the microphone.

“And now, if anybody else has anything they would like to share, they are welcome to speak.”

The switch has been pushed. It is as if I am outside of my body. I might have had my whole life flash before my eyes in the moment in which I went from seated to standing. I know without thinking that I needed to speak. To share with these people what Manny had meant to me. To deny them would make me a freeloader. Somebody who just sits and take without giving anything of his own. This is destiny.

I step forward and hear the profane cries of “Oh shit,” as if they know the full gravity of what I am about to lay before the crowd. If they are nervous, I am terrified, not quite knowing exactly what I was about to say. This is not about me. The moment could only pass through me, so long as I trust the stream of energy emanating from this room.

“Hello.”

I look out to the crowd. Vanessa is seated in the front row, not looking at me of course. I see Rodman, grimacing with respect. 200 people. 400 eyes, fixed on my position, waiting for something. I wait, wanting every one of them to feel the moment for themselves. The moment of anticipation where the group is one mind, waiting for the impulse.

Somebody muttered, “Is he okay?”

“This is what death offers up. This is its final gift. I have attempted to make sense of the rite for as long as I can remember. As children we are scared of death. As teenagers we are obsessed with it. But as adults we understand it, in as much as anybody can understand. We understand that we are fated to the same terminus. Merriam-Webster defines death as the end of life. The time when someone or something dies. And surely, that has happened for Manny. As it will for us all. In white America this is a time for somber reflection. But in more advanced cultures, it is something of a celebration. In Nawlins there would be a triumphant parade. In Mexico, Manny would have been celebrated annually. And in our hearts, no matter how painful or senseless it might have been, we owe it to Manny to remember his existence. ‘Our dead are never dead to us, until we have forgotten them.’ George Eliot.”

It is crucial to understand your audience. A comedian will tell you that laughter is appreciated, but it’s the applause that they crave. And in leveling the room, silence is platinum. Indeed, I can almost hear the audience blinking. I shake in the afterglow of the viscerally raw performance. Who can even tell where I was sitting before? It might as well have been a thousand rows behind Vanessa’s, and I fumble to the next open space so that I can decompress while the others spoke. I have to allow the moment to exercise itself from my being. People continue to speak. Nothing but tones to my ears, as I sit still, completely spent, my thoughts churning in indescribable directions.

I mentally return to the group as the minister returns to the podium and thanked everybody for their memories. He leads us in prayer, which even in a church strikes me as preposterous. But it allows me a glimpse of the church community. I wonder how many atheists still pay a tithing to house of worship they do not believe in, so that they can remain a part of the community? What percentage of priests have lost all faith in God?

I know as I sat, that the test is over and I had failed. I have a taste of Manny’s other side, but not the full flavor. While we raise our heads from prayer, it is obvious that I have missed my chance. I wait as the crowd rises and flows into the street. Vanessa blows past me before I can look. I have no way of knowing if she sought me out after my eulogy. Is she still too wrapped up in the death of her father?

I stood on the sidewalk in front of the church, pretending to need a cigarette, and seeking any lifeline that I could. Families loaded into their cars began to pull away, each one a failed lifeline. I disappeared into my suit, careful not to appear to be listening in on other people’s conversations, so as not to stir attention. Somebody had mentioned the after party at Manny’s house. It wasn’t hushed, but I could tell from the casual conversation that I was intercepting exclusive information. Obviously not something that they would put up fliers for. More like operating a speak easy. To know of the event is to be invited.

The rain had stopped, and the humidity began to rise from the streets. I pulled out my phone and began looking up old invites that Manny had sent me, to get his address. It wasn’t more than a 10-minute walk to his place, but it was a way I never went. The neighborhood was just too safe. Not just family friendly, but a fully gentrified suburb in the city. Every coffee shop featured the same A-frame chalkboards with the same ‘clever’ jokes, and the real estate offices offered pictures of estates in the country, and lofts downtown. It was the ‘hottest’ neighborhood and the people who could afford it couldn’t wait to move somewhere better.

Twenty years before there would have been men playing dominos on every corner. Now they have a gluten free frozen yogurt restaurants. Manny didn’t have a choice in this. He had been steamrolled by a new class of people. His conversion had been complete. I looked at his old house with despair. White picket fences. He had the white picket fences. An American flag flying from his front porch. He was always undercover corporate at the office, but this was deep cover. There was no music coming from the house. No hypnotic aroma of marinating pork meat. No signs of roughhousing on his crisp white porch. I could tell he had three types of mayonnaise in his refrigerator. The drive to secure the best future for their children will drive men to completely sell their souls. Manny was a much better man than myself.

I introduce myself to a couple in the kitchen and wonder when the rest of the family would arrive, or how they would even fit. I suppose there might be room on the back lawn, but 30 people are already milling about, and the house was looking mostly to capacity.

There is a minibar in the living room and I make myself a drink to be social. Pint glass with a half pour of rum and a splash of cola to keep me honest. Somebody had ordered pizzas, but I don’t want to be rude, and keep to my drink away from the herd. My stomach needs soothing before I can approach Vanessa, and I swallow a shot of tequila to expedite the matter.

I walk out to the back porch, and there she stands, by herself as if she needs a moment away from the strangers in the crowd.

“Dr. Angelou was one of my favorite poets.”

Vanessa shakes when she hears my voice from behind. She whips her head around and for the first time I can see that her eyes are most locked on me.

“I was a friend of your father.”

She smiles through her pain. She is being so brave. “I’m sorry,” she holds out her hand. “I didn’t catch your name.”

“Jonah. I’m sorry, I forgot to introduce myself again. I haven’t felt normal since the news, you realize. Of course you realize. I’m sure I can’t imagine what you’re going through.”

“Thank you.”

“I don’t even remember what I said back there at the podium. I’m sure it must have been fascinating.”

Vanessa opens her beautiful mouth to say something, but can’t find the words. “I don’t remember anything from the service.”

“Of course. Anyway, I did enjoy Angelou in college. Though I hate to admit it, I haven’t gone back to her in quite some time. You know I referenced George Eliot, who was really a woman.”

“Yeah. I took an introduction to English lit course in freshman year.”

Her playful banter was just like Manny’s, even in her grief. I finish my drink and playfully swirl the ice around glass. “I know it’s your dad’s house and you aren’t asking for permission, but could I do you the favor of getting you a drink?”

“I don’t.”

“Well. Opposites attract, as the song goes.”

“My brother died in a drunk driving accident.”

“I had no idea.”

“I’m surprised Manny never told you about that.”

“We didn’t have that kind of relationship.”

“What kind of friendship was it?”

“Mostly jokes about work. That kind of stuff.”

Vanessa nods with furrowed brows. “My dad never joked.”

She’s still fighting with her dad from high school. I guess we all are, but for somebody who is as emotionally intelligent as Vanessa, the fly in the ointment never gets overlooked. Small wrinkles formed deep rifts. I know I have to tread carefully so as not to risk scaring her away with a prohibitive initial impression.

“Let me give you a moment.”

“It was wonderful meeting you…”

“Jonah.”

“It was wonderful meeting you Jonah.”

“I’ll be right back.”

“I’m sure you will.”

On my return inside I notice that I have already started to feel the effects of the drink. The assembled family is legion, with every member a cell in some larger structure. I realize how out of place I am, even after being so close to understanding something about this day. I pour myself another strong rum and cola.

A pair of children are walking around. I weigh my options. Being good with children could be an easy way into their hearts, but my being a stranger who talked to children could make for bad PR. I pull away from the oncoming kids and fall into the corner of the table. Things could have been so much worse. I just as easily could have knocked the table over; it’s flipping force hurling the congealed cheese pizza across the room. I could have fallen backwards and knocked an elderly grandparent to an untimely death. But I manage to straighten myself out, after dumping my drink all over my white shirt. Nobody sees the fumble. They are all focused on their own conversations.

Vanessa of course would assume that I am a lightweight who can’t handle my drink. And her being a teetotaler would have predisposed her to disliking my vices on this tragic afternoon. I move back to the minibar, poured myself another drink, and grabbed an unopened bottle of club soda. I walk upstairs to find a bathroom at the end of the hall, where I can rip my shirt off and pour club soda on its wound. I need to dab, and grabbed the white hand towels. The white noise from the hissing tonic hypnotizes and I feel the boring, bland cleansing agent washing away the flavorful brown drink. Dab, dab, dab. I watch my sinewy muscles press against the fabric. I catch sight of my stomach in the mirror. A small brown trickle of cola has seeped through the fabric and collected itself against my pale skin. I am dizzy, realizing what I catch myself doing. Cleaning up the ‘bad’ element. The symbolism makes my head spin, as I stumble back and sit on the toilet now looking directly into my navel.

It is a deep navel, and from above I see America. Our shameful history. The white skin on top, completely surrounding the darker elements. The minorities of dirt and shirt lint. And the very alcohol am content to drink, but not be seen wearing. And I know that it’s not offensive to want this cleaned. To preserve the homogeny of whiteness in my shirt, is something that Vanessa and her family would accept, because they hadn’t made the connection. They couldn’t afford make the connection. Without being able to fully articulate the details, in that moment I profoundly understand the history and loss of slavery better than any person in America.

The stain had mostly come out. I will most likely throw the shirt out after the event, but with my jacket and tie over the damage, the shirt looked more wet than stained. I’ll hold a glass of water and say I was trying to hydrate. I chug the rest of my drink and look over at the now stained hand towels. Unsure of what else to do, I toss them into the garbage, as they are now undoubtedly ruined.

Down the stairs, I once again fade among the crowd. I push my way to the back porch, but Vanessa is gone. I reexamine the living room, kitchen, dining room, and the foyer, but can’t find a sign of her anywhere. I make small talk and mention that I am looking for Vanessa.

“It really was such a great eulogy.”

“She was so poised.”

“We actually just met, but I think there’s some deeper connection. It’s as if our backgrounds form two pieces to a puzzle.”

Just as I was begin to get my bearings in the house I feel the heavy hand placed on my shoulder. Turned around I see Rodman shaking his head.

“How did you get here?”

“I just walked. I was told that there was an after party.”

“After party. This is, um… this is a private affair for family members.”

“Well like I said at the church, I always felt as if-”

“Leave now.”

Within his eyes I see the return of the primal fighter determined to establish his dominance. Mine is easy calculus. I stand in a room full of strangers, and for all I know Vanessa isn’t even here any more. I could probably find her online, after I had a chance to bone up on some more Angelou. I can revisit Toni Morrison as well, just to cover my bases. There are no more traces of Manny to receive, so I nod and shake his hand, acknowledging that I don’t wish to overstay my welcome.

Had I learned anything? Would I remember Manny? Was I destined to move on completely, this whole funeral being just another trip to a museum? Or would it lead to some deeper revelation just over the horizon.

I feel the pangs of hunger, having not eaten any of their pizza. There is green food truck off in the distance. Wasabi infused lobster rolls. I step forward with an open stomach and a full wallet, waiting, wondering if Manny had known about this truck, or if he even liked fusion. Perhaps this is how I will redeem his memory.

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